Turning Tables into Altars

The principle metaphor for this post is taken from Kathleen Flake from her brilliant essay (and Sunstone presentation) entitled ‘Rendering to the Corporation’.  Flake recounts how in the Catholic tradition, resulting from the sacralisation of matter the shape and meaning of the sacraments of Holy Communion shifted.  Flake argues ‘what had been a plain table at the center of the Church became an ornate stone altar at the front of it’.  Flake uses this metaphor to consider how we can turn tables into altars through the ways that we engage with the Church.  I want to move Flake’s illustration from the unintended effects of ecclesiastical discourse into the realm of service and sacrifice.

The notion of sacred meals is a leitmotif throughout scripture.  These sacred meals can function as moments of covenant.  Further, they illustrate the life-sharing qualities that should permeate our religious communities while suggesting notions of fellowship and inter-dependence.  Moreover, I suspect that these sacred meals where intended to be shared at tables rather than at altars.  Therefore, I see real value in the way that we are encouraged to take our sacramental experiences out of the chapel and into each other’s homes through various forms of organised service and interaction.

Yet, in this regard, I have observed something in myself which concerns me.  I sense that when I meet with or serve another person I can either approach them through love and fellowship or I can approach them through sacrifice.  The latter approach (though good) has a tendency to set up unequal positions from which to interact.  The unsaid sermon of our interaction preaches that “I am here for someone/thing else (i.e. God) and not for you”.  Moreover, it is easy to become proud about our sacrifice (“It was hard for me.  I did not want to go home teaching, but I did it because I want to be like Christ – aren’t I a good person”).

Rather I sense that the Lord wants me to meet and serve with others as equals.  I think I am expected to serve out of a feeling of love for an individual or family.  I believe that when we focus too much on our own actions or sacrifices in such service we begin to turn what should have been a table of mutual fellowship and love into an ornate and elaborate altar of our own sacrifice.

A few weeks ago I sat with someone who had asked to speak to me about a particular challenge they were facing.  This was the second time I had spoken to them about this situation in the last few weeks.  In our discussion I inadvertently said something that was ill-advised, “we are here, speaking about X again!”  As soon as I said that last word I knew it was wrong.  Though I tried to explain what I meant, I believe they thought that this word reflected a frustration at my time being wasted because we had already spoken about this problem.  In that moment I inadvertently turned a table into an altar.

My point is not that altars are somehow unholy things.  Rather, I am trying to present a particular reading of these religious symbols.  I am convinced that altars should have a place in our worship because sacrifice is a very real part of our religion.  Altars should be found in our hearts and at the feet of God.  Yet, I think it wise to remember that God creates altars by his sacrifice for us.  I don’t believe that I can create altars; neither through my ‘sacrifices’ to him nor by service to others.  Altars are not usually found in people’s homes.  Nor should we try and put them there.  I hope I can remember to seek fellowship at tables rather than to administer across altars when I visit with the Saints.

Comments

  1. Aaron R wrote
    “Yet, in this regard, I have observed something in myself which concerns me. I sense that when I meet with or serve another person I can either approach them through love and fellowship or I can approach them through sacrifice. The latter approach (though good) has a tendency to set up unequal positions from which to interact. ”

    I think love and fellowship are the ultimate goals! And you can always tell when your being served or are serving out of a sense of duty. But I don’t think the later is necessarily bad. For many people they serve its a pain but eventually then they learn to love it and get a buzz from it. Others never get to that point

  2. Aaron R. says:

    Thank you for your comment. I agree that serving out of duty is better than not serving at all, yet I think there is a real tendency to become too focussed in our acts service upon ourselves, if we continue to see these acts through the lens of sacrifice alone. Unless we are making that transition to love I think we might be in danger of inadvertantly creating sacrifical altars.

  3. In response to Kant, Schiller asked, “But can’t I love doing my duty?”

    Great post. Thanks.

  4. Red Emma says:

    This is why I really like your post: The Church asks us to do things that can, under some circumstances and/or for some people, seem onerous. Sometimes–but not always–these activities are not clearly mandated by scripture and could, to a thoughtful person, seem optional. In order to motivate us to do these onerous things, the Church indicates that it is our duty to do them. The extent to which this is necessary tends to turn everything into a sacrifice, making our wards and branches into pan-sacrifice-ticons (sorry Bentham and Foucalt) where everyone watches everyone else to see how much they sacrifice. This can be a real drag…

  5. I think we need to distinguish between the ornate altars that seem to set the ritual above the congregation, and the simple altars that invite all to come near. I am reminded of Lehi’s journey into the wilderness. Nearly every chapter in the beginning of 1 Nephi mentions that Lehi built and altar and offered sacrifices of thanksgiving unto the Lord. Contrast this with Nephites who cast out the poor of their synagogues because they were not as well-dressed.

    There are also many different kinds of altars. Altars of prayer, like that built by Adam after being removed from the Garden. Altars of thanksgiving, like those mentioned above. Altars of sacrifice. Altars of remembrance, such as the Sacrament table. Altars of covenant, such as those seen in LDS temples. Altars of worship, which are probably closely tied to altars of prayer and thanksgiving. In general, I see altars as symbolic of sacred space within sacred space. Not quite the Holiest of Holies, but maybe the Holier of Holies?

    Our service to others should be around an altar of worship, of prayer, and of thanksgiving. When we alter that altar and make it one of sacrifice, we find that our service is less than is desired, needed, and expected.

  6. Excellent. I have no scholarly reasons for the reading, but I tend to view Christ’s submission to the bitter cup to be an act completely out of love for the individuals. There was definitely the “right” thing to do – to sacrifice – but it appears to me that he did not do it for duty’s sake.

  7. “I believe that when we focus too much on our own actions or sacrifices in such service we begin to turn what should have been a table of mutual fellowship and love into an ornate and elaborate altar of our own sacrifice.”

    This is succinct and lovely Aaron.

  8. Mark Brown says:

    Aaron, here is something that is so obvious that I am embarrassed it took me so long to realize it: people recognize quickly whether they are being loved as equals, or not. If we ever wonder why our sacrifice is not bearing fruit, it might be because others recognize our shallow hypocrisy better than we do.

    Great post.

  9. ” people recognize quickly whether they are being loved as equals, or not.”

    Hit the nail on the head.

  10. Fantastic, top to bottom Aaron, especially this:

    Yet, I think it wise to remember that God creates altars by his sacrifice for us. I don’t believe that I can create altars; neither through my ‘sacrifices’ to him nor by service to others. Altars are not usually found in people’s homes. Nor should we try and put them there.

    Many many lessons in PH/RS could be built around this…

  11. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks everyone for your kind comments.

    Alex, I completely agree with your more finely tuned view of Altars and think that the frequent repetition of altars in the BoM is indeed impotant in the context of the way that is tries to give us a view of the intensity and frequency of revelation in the lives of Lehi’s family.

    Stapley I very much agree with your sentiment about Christ.

    Mark, your comment regarding the failure of our own efforts is both clear and cutting. I think there is real profundity in that and certainly it calls me to repent. The dilemma I know I have faced in this situation is whether it is better to do nothing and or to do something, even if I know it is a little hollow.

  12. corktree says:

    I had a woman recently lament to me that she was watching another woman’s children (who was on National Guard duty) because she was hoping it would been seen as a service. I got the impression that she didn’t want people to think she was doing it out of friendship to this woman. It bothered me on so many levels, and your post explains one of them quite well.

    I do agree, however, that serving out of duty is often the only way we learn to truly love difficult people. Just as long as we never wear our frustrations on our sleeves and make it so painfully obvious to those whom we serve (or anyone else), I think we have a chance to do it right.

  13. Aaron, like others, this is the line that hit home for me:

    (Sacrifice) has a tendency to set up unequal positions from which to interact.

    I’ve been dancing around this line all morning, and the word that keeps coming back to me is “condescending”. I recognize that I often fall victim to this temptation in my church service, which is just so wrong. I understand that we start from a position of doing service out of a sense of duty, but as we practice, it has the potential to truly being motivated by love, a position of viewing others as equals.

    It is interesting to note that the only place where “condescension” is not offensive, is in understanding the “condescension of God” in the sacrifice of his Son, as Nephi learned in his vision of the Tree of Life.

  14. Aaron,

    Thanks for the post. Wonderful.

    In thinking about Alex T’s comment, it occurs to me that all of those altars were for offering sacrifice to the Lord.

    As we think about our service as sacrifice, it is perhaps a beginning step as #12 corktree says, on our way to learning to love. But the sacrifice (if any) ought to be to the Lord, I suppose, not to the person served.

    I remember that the Savior characterized those he served him first as servants, then later as friends, suggesting that progress is possible.

    Great food for thought.

  15. In our discussion I inadvertently said something that was ill-advised, “we are here, speaking about X again!”

    I had a friend respond similarly when I was obsessing over a particular problem. That reaction woke me to the fact that I was obsessing in an unhealthy way, so while at the time it bruised my feelings a bit, in the end it was a helpful reaction. I hope your friend takes it that way rather than it causing distance between you two.

  16. Great post.

    Condescending is a fitting word. Having erected my own altars of service in the past I’ve found that finding something in common with the person I’m serving allows me to see our equality.

    This brought to mind the church’s new addiction recovery programs. It’s my understanding that those called to lead these programs are to be well-acquainted with recovery from addiction through their own experience or someone close to them. Through the church setting this guideline it shows their recognition of this tables and altars analogy (it could just be that they are following the AA formula). A person who has dealt with a debilitating addiction is more likely to empathize and understand, and thus give appropriate service, than someone without that experience.

  17. Ella Menno says:

    I hav been pondering “service” in the ward and this post put everything I have been thinking into perspective. I dislike VTing, a lot, not because I dislike the women but because I dislike feeling like I am a project. I am trying so hard to make my service into something genuine, not forced, not condescending. We, as members of the church, really need to learn how to serve from a desire for the well being of others, not because it is our duty. I often wonder if we treat Christ as though he bore his burdens out of duty. He did not. He bore them out of pure love. We say it, but do we really understand it? Of course there are those people that it is difficult to serve. This is our challenge, to change our point of view from serving those difficult people because we have to to really wanting the best for even those we dislike. Changing our graven altars of sacrifice to tables around which we can love each other at the same level without the burden of duty. The duty to serve is never gone but it is changed into pure love.

  18. Stephanie says:

    I wish I could say that I always serve out of pure love. Sometimes I do. It’s easy to love YW and Primary kids (okay, some) because they are so loveable. But, a lot of the time, I serve out of pure duty, expecting that my sacrifice will bring blessings. I wish I could change from being selfish to selfless. I actually think about it a lot.

  19. You mean to say that slogging through every post on this blog will not get me into the celestial kingdom? I thought that was in the guarantee. Urgh.

  20. #16 — a great example with the ARP. When people are involved in traditional 12-step programs, the programs are typically made up of those with similar addictions (to alcohol or drugs or food or whatever the purpose of the 12 step meeting). In the church’s ARP, anyone with any addiction is welcome to attend, and facilitators are generally those who also have overcome an addiction (hopefully through the 12 steps), though the “leaders” of the group may not be.

    In our area we are also piloting a family support group, with is much more analogous to AlAnon or Families Anonymous, for families of those who are addicted.

    Because of shared experiences, it is difficult to feel anything but compassion for those who participate, especially since the healing that takes place is so well centered on the Savior and his redeeming love. While I’m sure it’s possible for an individual to set himself up as an “expert” (D&C 121 makes clear that’s always a risk), if someone truly works the 12 steps, that risk is mitigated.

    An excellent example.

  21. From my experience with the ARP group in my stake (which is that of an interested bystander, rather than as a leader, counselor, facilitator, or participant), there is no requirement for anyone to have gone through a similar problem before being allowed to lead a group, although I think it would be great if the groups can self-manage and self-perpetuate. (Right now, our stake has a couple of groups, and each are led by a couple called by the Stake Presidency to do so.) The manual was written by adapting the AA Twelve Steps (with permission, but without any official sanction), and with the input from those who have experienced addiction.

    Anyone is welcome to attend the meetings, whether they have addictions or not. Some choose to attend to offer support to a friend or family member. Some choose to attend because they want to see what ARP is all about, and are trying to see if it is something that can help those they know. The program is considerably different from most Church-sponsored groups in that there is no reporting of attendance. Those who attend are not encouraged to share what their addictions are. Rather, the are encouraged to discuss Gospel principles and share insights, comfort, and support. I third the motion of ARP being an excellent example!

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